UK police handling of online harassment cases. Do you feel safe?
If you still wistfully believe that safety and policing have moved with the digital age, and that if push comes to shove, the police are there to protect us both offline and online, I hope this powerful interview with a client of mine – let’s call her Jane – changes your mind. The interview openly reveals some of the reasons why so many victims of crime committed partly or wholly on the internet have no faith in the police and are reluctant to report it. The interview also identifies a number of relatively simple steps that the police must take to move with the times and make itself fit for purpose in the internet age.
After suffering online threats and harassment, Jane feels that the protection offered by police online is not enough. She is currently campaigning for the government to take action that could prevent what happened to her, her family and to her fellow school parents from happening to anyone else.
“There are a few issues,” Jane says. “The huge issue is with the police and the law. The police need to recognise when an online crime’s been committed, and if they can’t deal with it, they need to move the complaint to someone who can.”
Let’s fill in some of the background to Jane’s story first. The woman who harassed her was a fellow parent at Jane’s son’s school. Sonya reported about 30 parents and teachers, including the head teacher, to the police for child abuse; Jane was one of them. Sonya claimed that there was essentially a paedophile ring at the school, and her own children confirmed this story to the police.
It all turned out to be lies.
The police started investigating Sonya’s claims and found her children indeed showed evidence of severe sexual abuse, but when the police dug a little deeper and questioned Sonya’s children further, the children admitted it was their step-father abusing them with the full knowledge of their mother, and that their mother had told them to lie.
It should have ended there, but Sonya set up an online petition saying there were paedophiles at the school and the police were refusing to act — thousands of unknowing people signed the petition to get the police to arrest the innocent parents and teachers.
“Every time she’d do an update it would go out to about 150,000 people. On one of the updates, she made a post saying, ‘Oh, you need to go check these addresses and investigate.’”
She then posted a file that contained the names and contact details of parents and teachers from the school, including Jane’s. Jane had to erase all her social media profiles and change her phone number as she immediately began to receive threats. With the release of her home address and business name, she began to be harassed both online and offline.
But the police should have been able to do something, right?
At first when Jane, together with other parents, contacted the local police about the online posts the situation seemed promising. Jane spoke with a policeman who was fully aware of the workings of the internet, and he immediately saw a case of criminal harassment and for the need to take urgent action to stop the spread of the false allegations online. At that time, the harassment would still have been containable as it covered about a dozen websites, mainly Google blogs.
“They could”, said Jane, “have sent a letter to Google and that, I know now, would have solved the problem.”
The problem was that the police officer was told he had to get off the case because, apparently, the case should have been reported to another police force, literally across the road but in another borough where the school was located, rather than where Jane lived. The officer understood the urgency and wanted to take action but was unable to, because it wasn’t his jurisdiction – as if the internet is divided into postcodes.
“He phoned the other police station, standing next to us, and tried to convince them to go and make an arrest and get in touch quickly with the website operators who published the information. He didn’t succeed,” Jane says.
Most other police officers Jane encountered were not as helpful.
“What is more serious is the fact that she published the names of my children, which schools they go to and where they live. Basically, advertising for paedophiles. Police never understood when I was saying to them that there’s a danger of that. I think they never did a safety assessment of the danger we were all facing. They thought it was on the internet so eventually it would go away. I spoke to at least ten different police officers, none of them seemed to have a clue about how the internet really works. They seemed to have known no more about the internet than my 73 year-old dad. That was their attitude.”
“Like other parents at the school, I used to get threatening emails,” Jane said. “When the police asked us to forward them, I did. Every time I sent one I got a response back to clean up your email in order to enable it to send.”
The police servers were blocking the emails Jane was attempting to send them as evidence of her harassment, due to the explicit threatening language in the emails. They were then asking her to remove any bad language first — to remove the evidence of the threats before they could read them. They couldn’t open attachments or click links.
“The thing is the police have got filters on their computers which prevent them from receiving certain emails and from accessing certain websites. I was told by a police officer there are two reasons for this. The first one was to prevent viruses getting into police computers. The other reason is to avoid police officers accessing pornography while at work. They had to go home and use their computer to view evidence. There’s one computer between 130 police officers that is not attached to the same server that they can access links, but they need to make an appointment.”
Another issue was that in the meantime Sonya had been posting links to material she had already posted on other sites; the police were initially unsure if this constituted publishing.
“They kept dismissing it and saying: ‘She didn’t publish anything. She only posted a link’. They had to take legal advice, which took about 2 weeks to come back and finally, I got, yes, posting hyperlinks to existing material is the same as publishing it yourself.”
Although the law does not specifically define harassment, it can include repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and contact upon a victim or any other conduct that amounts to harassment of another. As the police took their time, the case became more complicated by the day.
The false allegations against the parents had attracted support from sympathetic anti child abuse groups and individuals from all over the world who were sharing the personal details of the victims’ families through dozens of websites, social media platforms and online chat groups.
In one instance, online stalkers found a Facebook page of a company Jane had once worked for. One posted to the page, “You are baby killer. Eating babies. You’re having sex with children. Satanic cult.”
“I was scared because obviously, they had my address; they could come to my door, open my door and come in. I moved away from that area,” Jane said. “Yes, I have a fear that someone will approach my child, paedophiles, or all of the crazy people that will try to save her from the ‘cult’. I had them both in mind. I had physical fear. The police interpreted harassment as immediate physical threat to property or individual, physically so until someone actually knocked on my door they wouldn’t do anything. It seems online harassment, no matter how severe it was, did not count for anything even if it meant this could end up in physical violence.”
The stress of the situation on Jane manifested itself in physical ways too.
“I lost a lot of weight. I lost 10% of my body weight in 6 months. More than 10% actually. I lost 6kg. I used to weigh 50kg. I had to be referred to a specialist because I thought I had bowel cancer. I was in constant physical pain as I saw my life falling apart.”
“The police, the council, no one in authority would do anything — a lot of them seemed not to understand the problem. When the police finally went to arrest Sonya, she escaped and abandoned her children and of course left all those websites and posts online. Police suspect she fled to Germany.”
What does Jane think needs to change so that others don’t have to go through the same kind of online harassment she has?
“First the police need enough education to recognise it’s an online crime. The second is to give them tools. They have one computer. They can have five. Their email system is rejecting explicit language; sort the filters out. They cannot look at websites together with you because they aren’t allowed in case they skive or watch pornography. For goodness sake, this is the police we are talking about. They are meant to protect us all in the new age of the internet and social media.”
“You need the police, but I think we need to have a team of specialists from different areas. They need to have an understanding of how the internet works, the back end as well. They need to learn how to apply existing laws to online offenses. If it’s too big for them, they need to have someone they can go to and say: We have this problem. Can you look at it? What is going on? Explain it to them.”